The first time Rohan Rehani, co-founder of Moonshine Meadery, tasted mead, he hated it. It was December 2014 and Rehani and his friend Nitin Vishwas were visiting someone in the US. During the trip, Rehani was curious to taste this alcoholic beverage made with fermented honey that had become the new cool drink in America. But he went beyond just trying it out – one day, Rehani and his friends attempted to brew their own batch of mead.
Their first attempt did not yield the result they wanted, and yet they persisted, at the insistence of Vishwas, who is now the co-founder of Moonshine Meadery. With a little help from the internet (which told them about the right kind of honey and the time required for fermentation) and lots of field work (trying all kinds of mead at bars), they attempted a few more batches, and with each batch, the taste improved.
“We felt like this sweet carbonated beverage, which was doing so well in the US, would be a hit in the Indian market because Indians love sweet stuff,” said Rehani. According to a Bloomberg report, in 2003, the US had roughly 30 producers of mead, a number that rose to 300 by 2016. “When we saw that this was a market that nobody had yet tapped, we just thought we would try to set up a facility and introduce this drink in the Indian market and see how it goes.”
After returning to Pune, Rehani took a bee-keeping course at the Central Bee Keeping and Training Institute to understand what makes good honey, and then went off to Pennsylvania to learn the craft from an expert at Colony Meadery.
By early 2016, Rehani and Vishwas incorporated Moonshine Meadery and a few months later acquired a space for mead production. Theirs is the first meadery in Asia, they say, and their product is all set to be launched in restaurant and bars in Pune and Mumbai by the first week of December.
In the lead-in to the launch, the duo have been testing batches of mead created in collaboration with Independence and Doolally brewing companies at food festivals in Pune. At present, they have two flavours – apple cider mead made with Kashmiri apples, and a coffee-flavoured mead made with artisanal beans from the coffee estates of Chikmagalur in Karnataka. They have also experimented with pumpkin-flavoured mead for occasions like Thanksgiving and Halloween.
The beauty of mead, according to Rehani, lies in its versatility. The defining characteristic of the beverage is that its fermentable sugar is derived from honey and using that as a base, it can be paired with a variety of flavours that include fruits, spices, herbs and other natural ingredients. The mead can range from light and refreshing to rich and complex.
Referred to as nectar of the gods and the drink of royals, mead has been around for more than 3,000 years. It finds mention in the ancient Indian collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns, the Rigveda, that was written almost 3,700 years ago. The epic poem, Beowulf, composed sometime between the 8th and 10th century, also mentions mead. In the poem, the grand hall of the king is referred to as the “mead-hall”, implying that mead was meant for finer occasions than those that called for ale.
In The Indian Spirit: The Untold Story of Alcohol in India, author Magandeep Singh writes about the ninth mandala (book) of the Rigveda being dedicated entirely to soma, a vedic ritual drink prepared by extracting the juice from a plant, the identity of which remains unknown and debated among scholars. Mead is mentioned as a synonym for soma in this mandala, along with others such subhra, gorjika, vivakasa, and sukra.
Author Hilda M Ransome writes in The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore about the importance given to honey or madhu in Sanskrit:
“In the Rigveda there are many hymns in which they [god] are mentioned in connection with honey. It was their chariot only which was called Madhuvahana, honey-bearing; in it, drawn by white horses which are compared with ambrosial swans, they carry ‘honey to the bee’. The horses are friendly, rich in store of mead, and they come like the bee to the mead. In another hymn they are come in their car, the car laden with mead, and sprinkle the people whip and so prolong their life.”
Mead has found its place as a popular drink in the world of fiction as well, quaffed by various characters – Ron Weasley in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Gimli the dwarf in JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth and by the royalty in George RR Martin’s Game of Thrones.
“Any culture around the world that had honeybees has mead mentioned in its literature,” said Rehani. “There were traces of mead found in ancient Chinese pottery, Ethiopia’s national drink called ‘tej’ is essentially a mead with some spices in it. Any region that did not have grape growing culture, made mead.”
The gold-coloured liquid lost prominence when grapes and barley production became cheaper and easier, and mead, which depended solely on honeybees, became the drink of the royals. The relatively high price of high-quality honey is still one of the reasons mead doesn’t enjoy mainstream attention. Mead made with sub-par or commercialised honey is, as Rehani and Vishwas discovered, quite terrible.
Moonshine’s mead is made from multi-flower honey locally sourced from Maharashtra. “The taste of the mead changes completely depending on what honey we are using,” said Rehani. “Just like all grapes aren’t the same, all honey is not the same. The flavour differs depending on the nectar source [flowers]. There is lychee honey, ajwain honey, eucalyptus honey, jamun honey and each one has a slightly different taste which has a huge impact on the final taste.”
Bee-keeping is not a popular occupation in Maharashtra, but there are some people who are focused on increasing the bee population in the state. Rehani and Vishwas are working with and sourcing from these smaller enterprises. They also have plans to set up their own bee-box in the future.